Preventing Fatal Distractions Tops Transportation Safety Priorities for 2015

By Roy Maurer Jan 26, 2015
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Preventing distractions from electronic devices and substance impairment are the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB’s) highest priorities for 2015, according to the agency’s annual “Most Wanted” list. The list highlights safety issues identified during NTSB accident investigations.

The 2015 list highlights two critical safety issues—distracted driving and prescription painkiller use, said Deborah A.P. Hersman, president and CEO of the National Safety Council (NSC). “Our desire to be constantly connected, even while behind the wheel, results in far too many deadly crashes, while the proliferation and misuse of prescription painkillers results in 46 overdose deaths per day.”

According to the NSC, both motor vehicle crashes and poisonings from prescription painkiller overdoses have been leading causes of unintentional injury deaths in the U.S. for the past several years.

Disconnect from Distractions

Increasingly, the use of portable electronic devices (PEDs) while operating a vehicle is posing a real threat in transportation, the NTSB said.

In 2013, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety reported that 67 percent of drivers said they had talked on a cellphone while driving within the past 30 days. Thirty-four percent admitted to reading a text message or e-mail while driving, and 26 percent admitted to typing or sending a text or e-mail.

“The first step toward removing deadly distractions will be to disconnect from nonmission-critical information,” the agency said. The NTSB recommends a ban on all PED use while driving motor vehicles, as well as while operating planes, trains and ships.

Research from the NSC shows public support for this measure. Seventy-three percent of drivers support more enforcement of texting laws, while only 22 percent said the current level of enforcement is fine, according to a June 2014 poll. And according to the AAA survey, the majority of Americans (89 percent) feel that a driver talking on a cellphone represents a “somewhat serious” or a “serious” threat to their personal safety.

Currently, only 14 states and the District of Columbia ban the use of handheld cellphones while driving. However, 37 states and the District of Columbia restrict the use of cellphones by novice drivers, while 44 states and D.C. ban text messaging while driving. None ban the use of hands-free devices.

End Substance Impairment

Substance impairment has been cited as a prime cause or a contributing factor in many transportation accidents, according to the NTSB. “Complex machinery such as cars, planes, trains, ships and pipelines require operators to be at their best—not impaired by alcohol or drugs,” the agency said.

And NTSB officials are concerned about the trend of decriminalizing marijuana and the effect that could have on transportation safety.

The agency is calling for more and better data collection to understand the scope of the problem and the effectiveness of countermeasures. The NTSB continues to urge commercial transportation employers to conduct required post-accident testing, and states to increase the collection, documentation and reporting of driver blood alcohol content test results following crashes. The agency also encouraged employers to spread awareness of the potentially impairing effects of prescribed or over-the-counter medications.

Require Medical Fitness

Any person suffering from a medical disorder that could lead to impairment should not be operating a vehicle unless he or she is receiving medical treatment that mitigates the risk to the public, the agency said.

Medical certification processes for safety-critical personnel vary widely across modes of transportation. For the railroads, required medical examinations cover only vision and hearing standards. For commercial drivers, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) recently started requiring training and certification for health care providers who perform medical examinations. However, “there is no mechanism to ensure recommended guidelines are followed,” the NTSB said.

In addition, “all transportation modes still lack a complete screening process for obstructive sleep apnea,” which has been a factor in multiple accidents.

The NTSB recommends a comprehensive medical certification system for hiring safety-critical transportation personnel, including these features:

  • A complete medical history of the applicant, taken at prescribed intervals, which includes medications, conditions and treatments, as well as a physical examination.
  • Specific personal history questions and physical examination procedures to identify applicants at high risk for sleep disorders.
  • Identification of specific conditions, treatments and medications that initially disqualify applicants for duty, with certification contingent on further testing specific to each condition.
  • Explicit and uniform processes and criteria for determining when an applicant has a treated but otherwise disqualifying condition.
  • Certificates that are good only for a limited time for applicants with conditions that are currently stable but known to be likely to deteriorate, to ensure appropriate retesting.
  • Medical examiners who are licensed or registered to both perform examinations and prescribe medication in a given state; are specifically trained and certified to perform medical certification exams; and have ready access to information regarding disqualifying conditions and required further evaluation.
  • A review system for medical examiners.
  • The capacity to prevent applicants who have been deferred or denied certification from finding another provider who will certify them.
  • A process for dealing with conditions which could impair safety and are diagnosed between certification exams.

Improve Commercial Trucking Safety

According to the NTSB, crashes, injuries and fatalities involving commercial trucks have been increasing over the past several years. In 2012, nearly 4,000 people were killed and more than 100,000 people were injured in truck crashes.

The safety of the commercial trucking industry gained national media attention on June 7, 2014, when comedian Tracy Morgan was critically injured and another passenger died in a crash involving a Wal-Mart truck driver.

The NTSB has called on the regulating agency—the FMCSA—to improve its oversight of employers, drivers and vehicles. “FMCSA regulations establish minimum requirements, not the gold standard,” the NTSB said. In recent crash investigations the NTSB has found that crashes happen even when employers are complying with regulations. “To manage their safety risks, trucking companies must go beyond securing regulatory compliance from all their employees, and proactively identify operational hazards and potential solutions.”

The agency recommends improving the system for determining a trucking company’s safety compliance and ensuring that new carriers address any safety deficiencies in a timely fashion, and are placed out of service swiftly if they fail to improve.

The NTSB supports recent regulatory actions taken by the FMCSA, including maintaining hours-of-service rules, mandating electronic logging devices that can help assure that drivers are adequately rested, and screening drivers for obstructive sleep apnea, other potentially impairing medical conditions, and potentially impairing drugs.

To address vehicle factors, the agency urges regulators to promote proper fleet maintenance and vehicle inspections during compliance reviews.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy

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